Although encompassing diverse mainstream and underground styles, the music of the NWOBHM is best remembered for drawing on the heavy metal of the 1970s and infusing it with the intensity of punk rock to produce fast and aggressive songs. The DIY attitude of the new metal bands led to the spread of raw-sounding, self-produced recordings and a proliferation of independent record labels. Song lyrics were usually about escapist themes such as mythology, fantasy, horror and the rock lifestyle.
The NWOBHM began as an underground phenomenon growing in parallel to punk and largely ignored by the media. It was only through the promotion of rock DJ Neal Kay and Sounds' campaigning that it reached the public consciousness and gained radio airplay, recognition and success in the UK. The movement involved mostly young, white, male and working-class musicians and fans, who suffered the hardships brought on by rising unemployment for years after the 1973–75 recession. As a reaction to their bleak reality, they created a community separate from mainstream society to enjoy each other's company and their favourite loud music. The NWOBHM was heavily criticised for the excessive hype generated by local media in favour of mostly talentless musicians. Nonetheless, it generated a renewal in the genre of heavy metal music and furthered the progress of the heavy metal subculture, whose updated behavioural and visual codes were quickly adopted by metal fans worldwide after the spread of the music to continental Europe, North America and Japan.
The movement spawned perhaps a thousand heavy metal bands, but only a few survived the advent of MTV and the rise of the more commercial glam metal in the second half of the 1980s. Among them, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard became international stars, and Motörhead and Saxon had considerable success. Other groups, such as Diamond Head, Venom and Raven, remained underground, but were a major influence on the successful extreme metal subgenres of the late 1980s and 1990s. Many bands from the NWOBHM reunited in the 2000s and remained active through live performances and new studio albums.
In the second half of the 1970s, the United Kingdom was in a state of social unrest and widespread poverty as a result of the ineffective social politics of both Conservative and Labour Party governments during a three-year period of economic recession. As a consequence of deindustrialization, the unemployment rate was exceptionally high, especially among working class youth. It continued to rise in the early 1980s, peaking in February 1983. The discontent of so many people caused social unrest with frequent strikes, and culminated in a series of riots (see 1981 Brixton riot, 1981 Toxteth riots). During this period, the mass of young people, deprived of the prospect of even relatively low-skill jobs that were available to the previous generations, searched for different ways to earn money in the music and entertainment businesses. The explosion of new bands and new musical styles coming from the UK in the late 1970s was a result of their efforts to make a living in the economic depression that hit the country before the governments of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The desperation and the violent reaction of a generation robbed of a safe future are well-represented by the British punk movement of 1977–1978, whose rebellion against the establishment continued diluted in the new wave and post-punk music of the 1980s. These self-proclaimed punks were politically militant, relishing their anarchic attitude and stage practices like pogo dancing. They wore short and spiked hairstyles or shaved heads, often with safety pins and ripped clothes, and considered musical prowess unimportant as long as the music was simple and loud. However, not all working-class male youths embraced the punk movement; some preferred to escape from their grim reality in heavy metal, which was equally effective in providing fun, stress relief, and peer companionship – otherwise denied because of their unemployment.